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Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Season of White Flies

The first part of this opening of a novel confronts us with a host of negations bound by tortured syntax. Briefly, it tells us what the narrator, an only child, will (or won’t: see below) inherit from her (Italian?) farmer father.

For all its twists and tangles it’s an alluring passage, attractively written, with Biblically incantatory rhythms out of the Song of Solomon. Indeed, the set-piece passage, which serves more as an appetizer to the story at hand than as the main course, reads like a prose poem. Not the wheel of dried figs kept in the drawer next to the sink, not the crema in the morning made on the old stove parked on a dirt floor in a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet, not the . . . The temptation to keep quoting is strong; the words having the tug and energy of a strong tide. Like most good songs they seduce by their rhythms even when their meanings are difficult or obscure. Poets can get away with that, I suppose.

Then again, as Ezra Pound once said, “Poetry to be good poetry should be at least as well written as good prose.” (Pound also said “No verse libre for the man who wants to do a good job.” He said many good things, this poet who was tried for treason during WWII and kept for 25 days in a steel cage.) Based on Pound’s dictum one may take issue with this opening passage, since—though it succeeds as prose-poetry, fails at the level of prose. It fails for being at best unclear, at worst contradictory. Is the narrator inventorying those things that she feels “already belong” to her, or those that will not?

There is more than a bit of confusion at work here especially in the opening paragraph’s final clauses, which take us back to the same war that had Ezra spouting anti-Semitism on the airwaves, when the narrator’s father “chased songbirds down with a slingshot”—birds that “he learned to cook and what he cooked, they all ate”—"they" referring, presumably, to his family, and to the narrator (“it was his home and I, his daughter and that land”)—though on the other hand it strikes me that the narrator has yet to be born, that these are not her own memories but communal ones of her father, passed down to her by others. And thus the steps “from the soles of [her] father’s bare feet”—those of the boy with the slingshot—trod a path through the woods that in turn recalls. . . the father’s feet! This bit of poetic feedback gives way somehow to one of a grandmother's “worried lungs” sending or shooting up their “soil” along with her sighs. By soil we may infer catarrh or something more sinister—chunks of the lungs themselves. It’s not at all clear, and I for one lack confidence that the confusion is mine and not the author’s. Of Wagner’s music Mark Train once quipped, “It’s not as bad as it sounds.” Of this passage I would say it’s not as good as it sounds—and it sounds very good. Its sweet music and sharp imagery are undone by sloppy syntax.

The second section of this opening is similarly compelling, and similarly challenged. Here the image is the singular one of a bed groaning under the weight of books that have displaced a romantic partner. The books are being gathered by the stack and, for reasons unspecified, weighed. Apparently, they have accumulated in the wake of a dissolved love affair or union. But here too a disregard for literal meaning in the name of poetry creates confusion and disorder where none is called for.

The scene opens with the bed groaning with books. The words “It had happened again” point to a sudden, unanticipated event, where in fact the books have accumulated over time. The next, one-line paragraph (“I had forgotten this”) suggests that the narrator has come upon this scene from a distance of time or space. From there we move to a mini-flashback of life with Sam, the narrator’s partner, with whom the need to accumulate books was “undone.” But the rest of the paragraph belies this topic sentence, telling how “when [the books] formed a perilous body” the narrator began to gather them (“. . . as I used to when I was in graduate school”). Thus we have three beds full of books to grapple with: the one before Sam, the one after, and one back in graduate school. Question: which bed are we lying in here, now?

Come to think of it, syntax has something in common with bedclothes. Though the author makes the bed, we, his readers, must lie in it.


  1. I like the imagery of the first paragraph, but not that it is one huge, run-on sentence. The second paragraph obviously has nothing to do with the first, so I'm lost. I honestly don't have the foggiest idea of what the author is talking about in either paragraph.

    But I'd like to. I really hope she re-does her opening.

  2. This assessment is dead-on. These particular issues are often issues for this author. And she is re-doing her opening with these words as the good flashlight in which to light the cave entry that begins a novel.

    Thanks for the smart, thorough and tough advice. (And the fabulous interpretation of a poem of mine you once read.)